ast summer, Ed Christopher of the Chicago Area Transportation Study - a metropolitan planning organization for northeastern Illinois-was about to embark on a major examination of travel times between specific points in his region. The data collected would help transportation authorities determine what road improvements were needed in the area.
Rejecting global positioning systems or radar guns to conduct such analyses, Christopher's office decided to use a "floating car" technique in which authorized drivers cruise designated roads at average speeds of other vehicles. In an effort to find out more about this methodology, Christopher did what any computer-savvy researcher does these days: He surfed the Internet. Within minutes, he had tapped into a World Wide Web site at the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) and retrieved a recent floating-car study conducted by the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development.
"I quickly had my hands on data that would have taken days to obtain by plowing through library shelves-something I don't have time to do," says Christopher, director of information services for the Chicago Study. "The Web site has become a tremendous resource."
Christopher is one of scores of the federal government's "customers" who are singing the praises of the Internet-an infrastructure of 50,000 interconnected networks linking 20 million computers worldwide. During the last three years, more than 800 federal sites have been set up on the World Wide Web-a user-friendly part of the Internet in which arcane codes are replaced by colorful graphics and "hypertext" links that enable users to click on highlighted words and jump directly to files related to those subjects.
The Web has helped agencies overhaul the way they do business. They are now making text, graphics, audio and video information available to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are using the Internet to conduct procurements, issue permits, process grant applications, offer employment and training services and automatically collect and disseminate information. Net surfers can electronically file their taxes, check on the status of their Social Security benefits, order coins from the U.S. Mint, retrieve Supreme Court decisions and search Postal Service databases for ZIP codes. And the Web's reference libraries contain information on every subject imaginable.
"Federal agencies are way ahead of the private sector in making a large amount of information available at a minimal cost to an unprecedented number of people," says David Lytel, who manages the White House Web site. "The Freedom of Information Act used to be the standard way to get certain kinds of information. Now, the Web has become the de facto way; it's the first place many people look."
The Web also has played an important role in revitalizing citizen participation in politics. Agencies regularly use the Internet as a means of polling people for their opinions on various issues. And elected representatives use it to hold electronic town meetings with their constituents. The day citizens will be able to cast their votes over the Internet may not be far off.
But the road to cybergovernment is not without its potholes. Internet technology is still immature, with many incompatibility problems affecting the interoperability and reliability of systems. Experts continue to debate the best methods for safeguarding data and protecting intellectual property rights on the Web.
Agencies, meanwhile, are fighting in-house battles over who should control what information goes out on the Net. Some are clashing with private-sector firms that have laid claim to certain types of government-generated data. And then there is the problem of providing universal access to Web sites, so that poor or rural citizens don't become part of an information underclass.
"There's certainly no shortage of obstacles, but the important thing is that we're on our way," says James Flyzik, director of the Treasury Department's Office of Telecommunications Management and chairman of the Government Information Technology Services Working Group-part of the Clinton Administration's Information Infrastructure Task Force. "We've taken the first steps with Web projects and are making progress."
Nowhere is progress more evident than in the content of federal Web sites. First-generation sites that began appearing three years ago contained little more than mission statements, photos of key officials and telephone numbers. Today's Web sites, by contrast, provide vast amounts of data, with high levels of interactivity.
Some agencies' sites include search engines to help users quickly comb through thousands of documents without having to memorize particular file structures of sites, while hypertext links provide easy access to related data.
"Hypertext is the best thing to happen to government since the payroll deduction of taxes," says Lytel. "In the same way that the deduction made paying taxes invisible, hypertext makes the delivery of government information transparent."
One of the best examples of cybergovernment is the Bureau of Transportation Statistics Web site (http://www.bts.gov), which Ed Christopher at the Chicago Study used to research travel-time methodologies. The year-old site, which recently won a Hammer Award from Vice President Gore's National Performance Review, contains a repository library of more than 1,500 transportation documents from federal, state and local agencies.
The library is divided into 24 categories ranging from traffic patterns, accidents and safety to transportation regulations and congestion management. Within those categories are hard-to-find-and sometimes out of print-documents on esoteric subjects such as "Energy Intensiveness of Trucks, 1960-1992" or "Time Leaving Home to Go to Work, 1990." One of the most popular data sets are the on-time statistics for major airlines, which are searchable by city.
Data reside either on the bureau's computer server or on other agency servers that are linked via hypertext to the BTS home page. (A home page is the opening screen of a Web site.) The thematic presentation of information leaves users unaware that some documents might be retrieved from thousands of miles away.
"Researchers don't care where the data originates; the important thing is that they get it," says Bob Zarnetske, acting assistant director for information technology at BTS. "So instead of taking 20th century technology and laying 19th century bureaucracy over it, we've cut out layers of organization and presented the material in a user-friendly format. By doing so, we've been able to make a lot of hay with a little budget."
Zarnetske estimates that startup costs for the Web site ran about $100,000 for personnel, computer-graphics software and two servers. (Sites are posted on servers, which can be anything from 486 PCs to supercomputers.) Maintenance costs run about $25,000 annually, mainly to cover the salary of a computer programmer-known as a Webmaster-and various researchers. Part of that expense includes downloading Web documents to CD-ROMs. Much of the clerical work-such as scanning hard copy onto the Net-is handled by college students.
Zarnetske's costs are well within the average spent by federal agencies on Web sites. Small agencies can expect to pay a minimum of $5,000 in start-up costs for a server, software and technical staff, with maintenance expenses running anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000 a year. Costs could be brought down by renting space on another organization's server, which runs $50 to $250 per month. Larger agencies with elaborate sites capable of handling sophisticated transactions such as order entry can run up $100,000 to $500,000 in startup costs, with annual maintenance expenses totaling $50,000 to $250,000.
"It really depends on the size of the site, how many hits you're getting a day, and what you're trying to do," says Michael Bartell, chief information officer of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which recently launched a Web site in less than four weeks for about $200,000. "The costs usually don't seem that high once you compare them to the price of postage and the expense of maintaining phones and administrative staff."
At the SEC, eight staffers were assigned to spend part of their time setting up the agency's site, and three staffers now spend part of their time maintaining the site. More than 2 million files are accessed from the site every month. All but the biggest Web sites are using part-time maintenance personnel, usually supplied and funded by agency information resource management (IRM) departments.
"Once you get up and running, it's really not a full-time job to maintain a site unless you're conducting major customer-service applications," says Bartell. He stresses that Web projects must involve representatives from a cross-section of an agency. "If the project sits exclusively with the IRM or communications shop, you run the risk of having it being driven by technology instead of content." In preparing to launch its Web site last year, the SEC formed a Web advisory team comprising people from several different offices and led by SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr.
The next generation of Web sites will feature large amounts of artificial intelligence and offer fully interactive applications. These will cost substantially more than today's sites and probably will require dedicated program personnel-and even specialized departments. If agencies can't get congressional appropriations for such efforts, they'll have to try public-private partnerships or fee-for-service initiatives.
Thus far, however, federal Internet projects have received bipartisan support. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., championed the development of Thomas, the Library of Congress Web site containing the full text of all legislation introduced in the House and Senate. In his fiscal 1996 budget request, President Clinton asked for more than $100 million in funding for various Internet projects in support of the administration's National Information Infrastructure program.
Some of the more creative Web sites have received funding from the Innovation Fund, operated by the Government Information Technology Services Working Group and the General Services Administration's Interagency Management Council. The fund, created two years ago as an outgrowth of the National Performance Review, seeks to finance multi-agency Web initiatives. This year it will contribute $11 million to Internet projects.
"The idea is to take savings from programs such as FTS 2000 [the government-wide telecommunications contract] and reinvest that money in pilot tests for innovative Web sites," says James Flyzik. "The main criterion is that the projects must cut across government."
One of the goals of the Clinton Administration's Government Information Infrastructure project-a subset of the National Information Infrastructure initiative-is to provide categories of government services to computer users via single access points. One of the best examples of this is the Postal Service's Web Interactive Network of Government Services (WINGS) program, which integrates Web service delivery across all levels of government.
By linking to the WINGS site, computer users can conduct transactions with federal, state and local government from one port-instead of relying on hypertext links to other sites. A person preparing to move cross-country, for instance, can click on an icon entitled "Moving" and arrange to have mail forwarded to another post office, register to vote in the new district, apply for a new driver's license and notify the Department of Veterans Affairs of the address change.
"We provide one-stop shopping for those tired of the complexity of dealing with government," says Susan Smoter, WINGS program manager. "In the same way that a single stamp can take a letter anywhere it wants to go, our Web site aims to take users anywhere they want to go in government."
WINGS integrates services from 30 agencies that pay transaction fees to the Postal Service, which hopes to make the 2-year-old Web site available via public kiosks across the country. A trial kiosk will be launched in Baltimore next month.
Another innovative Web site providing one-stop shopping is the U.S. Business Advisor, developed last June by the Small Business Administration, the Commerce Department and the National Performance Review in conjunction with other agencies. The site is designed to provide regulatory, legal, environmental, financial and labor information to companies in an interactive format.
A small business owner wanting to know how to deal with an asbestos problem, for instance, simply answers a series of questions about the size of the building, the year it was built and how many people work there. Then the system churns out a list of rules-culled from thousands of pages of regulations-pertaining to the specific problem.
The site also enables companies to conduct on-line transactions, such as filing permits, submitting wage reports, applying for loans, registering patents and downloading business forms.
"Small businesses repeatedly complain about how difficult it is to deal with the government," says Greg Woods, a member of the National Performance Review team responsible for information technology and customer service. "Our goal with the U.S. Business Advisor was to change the way government interacts with its customers."
The site, which is accessed about 1,000 times daily, is maintained at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Funding is provided by the National Performance Review and the Innovation Fund.
The granddaddy of government information-locator sites is FedWorld, run by the Commerce Department's National Technical Information Service. The 3-year-old site provides everything from White House and agency press releases to tax forms, weather satellite images and copies of trade agreements. It enables users to communicate on topics of shared interest or to post public comments on proposed government rules. Links are provided to 140 federal bulletin board systems and more than 250 government Web sites. The service, which receives about 10,000 hits a day, is maintained by a staff of six full-time workers.
Individual agencies are stepping up their efforts to provide information over the Internet. In response to a Commission on Federal Paperwork report charging the government with not knowing "what information it collects, with what frequency, from whom, and for what uses," the Office of Management and Budget put out a bulletin last year requiring each agency to establish a Government Information Locator Service (GILS) on the Web. Each GILS locator will serve as an electronic inventory of agency information in both paper and electronic formats. On-line bibliographies will describe documents and databases, and explain how the public can access them.
Although some agencies implementing GILS have installed impressive search engines on their Web sites that quickly link users to data access points, others are offering little more than electronic versions of library index cards.
Incompatibility across agencies and systems is just one of the difficulties in creating cybergovernment. Many federal computer systems and staffs still are not up to the demands of Web-site maintenance. The Internet network protocol, TCP/IP, requires sophisticated skills that are not yet available at some federal organizations.
Then there are problems with the technology itself. Different types of browser-support mechanisms and user-authentication schemes sport massive inconsistencies. Three versions exist of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language)-the language used to display hypertext on the Web-and all are incompatible.
Performance of Internet access technologies, such as PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol) and SLIP (Serial Line Internet Protocol) connections, can be unpredictable and too slow for certain tasks-leading to system crashes in some cases. And network overload problems are responsible for the all-too-frequent "access denied by host" messages received by Web surfers.
In addition to technical problems, security is a major concern to Web-site operators. Last September, a couple of graduate students decrypted credit-card numbers and messages that were supposed to be protected by a Web-browser program from Netscape Communications Corp., the leading maker of Internet software. The break-in, which was the second reported by Netscape in a year, led to a new version of the software and prompted the company to offer rewards to anyone finding other holes in the program's security.
The federal government is battling hackers and spies with a number of weapons. Smart cards, which contain microchips, generate passwords and confirm identities of those entering some Web sites. NASA and certain Defense Department agencies use "firewall" software to authenticate passwords and control who sees what and under what terms.
Perhaps the most important defense mechanisms against security breaches are digital signatures-a series of complex algorithmic codes that enable recipients of computer messages to authenticate the identification of senders. Both the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Defense Department have been working recently on prototypes of digital signatures.
The National Performance Review recently issued a mandate for establishing public digital-signature programs based on NIST's Digital Signature Algorithm. GSA's Security Infrastructure Program Management Office is coordinating efforts to get all agencies to use the same standad for digital signatures. In a pilot study beginning this month, the Internal Revenue Service will incorporate the standard in a Web site designed to receive completed tax forms from home computer users.
When not defending their Web sites against cyberbandits, agencies have been busy battling private-sector organizations over ownership of government data. The reason is some agencies have gone into the business of selling information over the Internet. The Patent and Trademark Office, for example, peddles patent data from its Web site. This has drawn strong criticism from citizens groups and companies claiming the government should not be playing the role of value-added reseller.
Agencies are even catching flack for giving away information on the Net. Two years ago, the Securities and Exchange Commission began distributing company financial reports on a Web site 24 hours after they had been filed. Trade associations and market-research firms claim the SEC's service violates the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, which states that agencies should be as economical as possible in the amount of information they disseminate to the public.
The Information Technology Association of America-a trade group representing 325 high-tech firms-argues that the SEC should not be spending taxpayers' money to put 12 million documents a year up on its Web site when a myriad of vendor services exist for such a purpose. The SEC maintains, however, that the money spent on its site is significantly less than what citizens would have to pay to obtain the data from private-sector firms.
"Our feeling is that we have to collect the information anyway, so why not make it available for free to the investing public?" says SEC Chief Information Officer Michael Bartell. "The Paperwork Reduction Act can be interpreted in various ways. The important thing is that we're not adding too much value to the data, so companies still can manipulate it and repackage it for sale to those interested in special analyses."
Another war is being waged by those objecting to federal money being spent on Web sites that are not accessible to everyone. Only about 20 percent of American households, for instance, have home computers. Many rural residents don't have Internet service providers in their areas.
In an effort to broaden access to federal Web sites, the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications Information Administration is issuing grants to help provide Internet access to schools, libraries and hospitals. Other organizations, such as the Postal Service, are setting up public kiosks that can be accessed by the public 24 hours a day. Some agencies are even considering setting up special 800 phone numbers, which would provide free dial-up service.
The Clinton Administration has voiced strong support for all efforts to broaden access to the Internet. Some federal officials, in fact, have a downright utopian view of the Web's future. "As more people obtain access to federal Web sites," argues Flyzik, "the easier it will be for agencies to provide round-the-clock services to the public-thus ushering in a new era of government and ultimately leading to economic and intellectual prosperity for all."